Red Lake Nation News - Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Regalia Making Mothers refocus to make face masks that protect Chickasaw elders from COVID-19


April 16, 2020

Jennifer Kellner works with a heaping mound of paisley fabric.

ADA, Okla. – Regalia Making Mothers, a group formed by Chickasaws to provide First American regalia for American Indian foster children, is now making face masks to protect the health of tribal elders.

The group began as a quest to provide regalia for children before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation. Skirts, vests, ribbon shirts and other fashion items were being prepared for dances and other ceremonies – either now canceled or indefinitely postponed.

As the pandemic gripped the nation, the need for masks became paramount to protect elders, who are at a greater risk of succumbing to it due to underlying medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Regalia Making Mothers began when Chickasaws were asked if they would be interested in making regalia to help introduce young people to their Native American culture. The idea took off like an Oklahoma prairie fire. The notion to bring together the talents of Chickasaws came to Sonya Frazer, a Chickasaw Nation Medical Center nurse, late last year.

"Regalia Making Mothers" total 25 members. Until the pandemic, every other week the group met in the conference room at the Chickasaw Community Center in Ada. They turned it into a sewing and cutting room, where child-sized ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts, dresses, vests and other garments indicative of Chickasaw and American Indian heritage were crafted.

However, as the pandemic sweeps America – several cases have been documented in Pontotoc County – they turned to making face masks.

While national health experts initially said facial masks were not necessary, the experts did an about face recently and began recommending them for the general public.

Filters, which trap small particles that might sicken elders, are sewn into the masks. American Indian patterns bring beauty and solace in these stressful and uncertain times. The team is making masks daily for tribal elders since no one is certain when the COVID-19 risk will pass.

In the past, Regalia Making Mothers gathered as a group, shared ideas, assisted each other with projects and inspired one another's creative notions. They last banded together Feb. 26, shared a meal, prayer and enjoyed social interaction.

When the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Washington state, gathering as a team ended with the pandemic and members now work from home.

The group is inventive, often incorporating fabric not necessarily resembling traditional American Indian patterns.

Raymond Cooper, a Choctaw citizen, completed a ribbon skirt with beautifully coordinated ribbons sewn to fabric covered with images of Walt Disney's Minnie Mouse.

"To a young female American Indian, this will bring joy to her heart," Cooper said. Within an hour, he finished a ribbon vest for an American Indian male foster child with a Mickey Mouse theme.

Cooper did not use a pattern to make the items. He has been cutting and sewing since childhood. Isolated at home due to a diagnosis of tuberculosis, his mother taught him as a child how to sew, cut fabric and craft garments through intuition and educated guesses. He also is a master at beading and has been called on by others in the group to place beaded bling into a few of the garments.

Chickasaw Jennifer Kellner, a Chickasaw Nation Family Services employee, was particularly thrilled to be working on garments featuring a multi-colored paisley pattern. Stationed at a sewing machine, Kellner worked from a pattern. It would result in a traditional tribal prairie skirt after it was cut, hemmed, fashioned with ribbons and elastic tucked into the waist.

"There is just an excess of color in this. I love it," she said while wrestling with the large bundle of material. "So many items can come from this fabric, it's just a matter of deciding on what to make," she added with a smile.

Cassandra Alexander, also a Chickasaw Nation employee working with community services as an outreach supervisor, was finishing a Navy-blue skirt adorned with orange, yellow, pink and lime green ribbons.

"I think this project is wonderful. It gives American Indian children in foster care the identity they need to honor their heritage. It is important and I am so pleased to be a part of it."

Aliciajoy Gibson and her 8-year-old daughter, Lilah, worked in tandem. Gibson is employed by the Chickasaw Nation's health department and is quite handy with a sewing machine.

Lilah helped her mother craft a small blue floral skirt with white, red and blue ribbons. An elastic waistband put the finishing touch on the piece, and Lilah took a moment to pose for a picture with it.

"It's pretty," the shy youngster said in a quiet voice.

Lilah Gibson, 8, shows a Native skirt she helped create with her mother, Aliciajoy Gibson.

Fabric with butterflies was quite popular at the Feb. 26 gathering. Jennifer Jesse and her 11-year-old daughter, Jacobe, were attempting to color-match a band of light blueish-green fabric laden with butterfly prints to complement a taupe skirt. A debate ensued between mother and daughter if perhaps other colors would coordinate better. On this night, the issue was unresolved, and the garment would wait for another opportunity to spring to life. Jesse works for the Chickasaw Nation in public health. Her daughter is a student at Byng High School.

Frazier did not have the same issue when preparing a butterfly band on Kelly green fabric. The beautiful butterfly bolt – red, blue, green, purple – worked perfectly. What she struggled with was the color combination of ribbons she planned to use to finish the project.

Sprawled on the floor in front of two pieces of cloth, she placed spools of ribbon on either side of the butterfly band to determine which would be the most flattering. Sewing team members Beth Harvey and Rita Hart made a few suggestions.

She looked up and smiled after hearing the varying options.


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